Is My Baby in Hell?: Hope for Parents of Unbaptized Infants
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Michael Lofton is the host of the Reason and Theology show and is currently pursuing his Th.D. with Pontifex University on weighing magisterial texts. His recent work is entitled Is My Baby in Hell? Hope for Parents of Unbaptized Infants (R&T Press, 2020). In it, he brings the erudition for which he is known to a difficult topic that has affected many pious souls for centuries, and especially in our age of unborn bloodshed. Lofton begins with a candid description of his own struggle to save his unborn child from abortion, which ultimately ended in that baby’s murder. He offers this theological investigation to the Church and for parents who have suffered the loss of an unbaptized child, with the pious intention to be faithful to the Magisterium and Tradition as passed down.
Lofton clearly discusses the most fundamental principles of the question — namely, the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation and also the will of God that all men be saved. How can these two be true when souls can perish without any fault of the parents? This is the question many great saints have taken up and investigated.
Lofton reviews numerous Fathers and scholastics one by one, showing the range of opinion among the saints on the question of unbaptized infants. On the one hand, there is the view that unbaptized infants go to eternal punishment but suffer only the most minimal sufferings. This is the view of Augustine, Gregory the Great, Anselm, and Bellarmine.
Another view also has a great deal of weight. This view holds that infants go to a place called Limbo, which is neither punishment nor reward. Here some hold that Limbo includes a purely natural happiness; others hold there is a suffering in the loss of the beatific vision. Lofton shows this as Augustine’s earlier view, shared by Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Anastasios of Sinai, Abelard, Lombard, Innocent III, Aquinas, and Alphonsus, with Bellarmine, too, taking it up later. It was a proposition also written in one of the Vatican I schemae.
A minority view is held by Cajetan, Durandus, Biel, Gerson, Toletus, and Klee, who assert that a child could receive the grace of baptism and enjoy the beatific vision by an extraordinary baptism of desire. Lofton discusses that this teaching by Cajetan is based on a dubious text but argues reasonably that it should not be dismissed.
One of the remarkable things about this work is its erudition and readability regarding the magisterial authority. Lamentably, most Catholics talk about only whether a teaching is infallible. Lofton spends a great deal of time talking over how the Magisterium works, the levels of teaching, and how they operate. These concepts are vital for our own times of doctrinal confusion and obfuscation.
Having reviewed the magisterial and theological sources, Lofton draws conclusions about the obligations of Catholics to believe in the doctrine of Limbo:
[M]ultiple theologians … have denied that it was ever taught definitively, so establishing that limbo was the “constant” and “universal” teaching seems unlikely. The possibility of limbo most certainly has been taught by the authentic magisterium, so it requires at the very least religious submission of intellect and will as a possibility for infants who die without baptism. It can even be said that the teaching that infants do in fact go to limbo is part of the “common teaching” of the church, but it cannot be said to be more than that. (p. 74–75)
Here Lofton makes reference to the theological notes. The idea that the teaching is a “common teaching” (sententia communis) means that Catholics are bound to believe unless they have grave cause to withhold assent. Thus, the teaching has not quite gained the authority of a “constant and universal” teaching, but it must be accepted as a part of the piety we owe to the Fathers. This is why Pius VI condemned the Synod of Pistoia for mocking Limbo as “false, rash, injurious to Catholic schools” .
However, Lofton here inserts a crucial distinction: the teaching of the Church de fide must be held as distinct from the actual fate of each infant:
What can also be said is that if someone (including unbaptized infants) dies in a state of original sin, then they will be deprived of heaven. This could be considered de fide and it is the view of the International Theological Commission and Fr. Ludwig Ott that it is definitive. In other words, the proposition that if an unbaptized baby dies in a state of original sin then they will go to limbo is a definitive teaching, but that any unbaptized infant actually does die in a state of original sin and goes to limbo is merely a common teaching and not to be considered definitive.
It should be stressed that the possibility of God’s removing an infant’s original sin, in an extraordinary way, is not a denial of the doctrine of limbo or the doctrine that those who die in a state of original sin go to hell. In other words, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Pope Saint John Paul II by speaking of the possibility of mercy for unbaptized infants were not advocating for a doctrinal change. Rather, they were simply addressing an opening in the church’s teaching that the church did not address previously. This means, those who hope God may give the grace of baptism to an unbaptized infant, in an extraordinary way, are not advocating for a doctrinal change, but a doctrinal qualification. (p. 76)
Here Lofton argues for the conclusion of the recent International Theological Commission, making his claims more controversial. He readily admits that the assertions of Cajetan are in the minority and the recent magisterial teaching from Papa Wojtyła is also new. However, the distinction he makes is not unreasonable, since the Tradition seems to allow possibilities for an extraordinary application of baptismal grace. Moreover, he is correct to say that no contradiction exists between the proposition “if a soul dies with Original Sin, it is deprived of Heaven” and the proposition that “this soul may be cleansed of Original Sin and be mercifully saved.” As Nathan said to David in an instant of extraordinary grace, The Lord also hath taken away thy sin: thou shalt not die (II Kngs. 12:13).
Lofton makes his case for the possibility of such extraordinary grace by citing, among others, the Angelic Doctor:
Children while in the mother’s womb have not yet come forth into the world to live among other men. Consequently they cannot be subject to the action of man, so as to receive the sacrament, at the hands of man, unto salvation. They can, however, be subject to the action of God, in Whose sight they live, so as, by a kind of privilege, to receive the grace of sanctification; as was the case with those who were sanctified in the womb. (III q68 a11)
The principles contained in these words were the ones used by Cajetan and others to assert that a baptism of desire can exist vicariously through the will of the parents. After all, it is reasoned, do not infants receive baptism vicariously through the parents’ faith?
Here we turn to another of Lofton’s controversial assertions, which is that Catholics are bound to the newest Magisterium of John Paul II, in which he stated in Evangelium Vitae, 25 that there is a hope for unbaptized infants. The weight of the Tradition is against this assertion, but the distinction made by Lofton allows for this as a possibility. It can be asserted that all souls stained with Original Sin go to Limbo while allowing the possibility that souls may receive an extraordinary grace nonetheless. The extra-sacramental, extraordinary grace is the only way that these two can be held together. This allows Lofton to assert that this newer teaching does not contradict or supplant the old.
This brings up an important issue that was raised in an interview with Lofton on his book: the issue of de facto sedeprivationism present among many traditionalist Catholics. The idea is that if the Magisterium accepts Vatican II, then the pope has lost his teaching authority and can be ignored. Although he too is a critic of Vatican II, Lofton asserts, with a certain consistency, that a Catholic must still be bound to all the teachings of popes (according to their theological note) if these teachings do not contradict what came before. The reader may disagree with Lofton’s distinction to allow for John Paul II’s teaching on this point, but his principle of magisterial authority seems sound.
Overall, the book is a convincing case for Limbo holding the note of communis while allowing the hope for unbaptized infants to be probabilis or perhaps even communis based on magisterial acts in favor of the newer proposition. Lofton’s greatest weakness is that he does not sufficiently guard against the Modernist exploitation of his work. No doubt he creates an honest and faithful study and eschews Modernism, but as he begins to discuss extra-sacramental means of baptism, he emphasizes the necessity of water baptism in a footnote.
The reason why this is a criticism is due to the fact that the Theological Commission document on this point rehearses the tired phrase “we have sought to read the signs of the times and to interpret them in the light of the Gospel” (102). In practice, this leads to the sin of presumption and parents sinning by delaying baptism, as we have seen occurring during the COVID-19 lockdown crisis. This is a serious problem, and unfortunately, Lofton does not do more in this area to safeguard his work from being manipulated in Modernist’s hands.
In addition, I would have liked to see further examination on customs and liturgical texts, which show the Tradition that obtains among the people and the Holy Mass. Lofton does not sufficiently examine the old liturgical books, the custom of baptizing miscarried and stillborn children, and the moral theologians on this point.
Despite these shortcomings, Lofton’s book is eminently readable for a popular audience and contains the erudition to make a convincing case for his point of view. His work also frames the discussion in terms of faithfulness to the Magisterium instead of the Modernist approach of finding a way to support errors no matter what the Tradition says. Overall, Lofton has produced an excellent piece of scholarship to contribute to the theological discussion on this topic as well as reconcile within his own soul his Catholic faith with the fate of his own child and those of other parents who have suffered a loss like his.
 Heinrich Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, 43rd Ed. Hünermann (Ignatius: 2012), no. 2626
Timothy S. Flanders is the author of Introduction to the Holy Bible for Traditional Catholics. In 2019 he founded The Meaning of Catholic, a lay apostolate. He holds a degree in classical languages from Grand Valley State University and has done graduate work with the Catholic University of Ukraine. He lives in the Midwest with his wife and four children.